The Tower of London, August, 1756
Despite it being summer, Jesse noted how cold it was as he made his way down the corridor. He saw a shape move in the shadows just in front of him. He sighed. it was probably Lukah; the dark prison had done little to dampen his spirits, even if they weren't the prisoners. Jesse supposed that it was something about being Italian that made his partner this way - he couldn't imagine anyone being so cheerful by choice. But then, Jesse found little use for such humour as a soldier.
Jesse moved his hand subconsciously to his hip, where the hilt of his sword lay. If the shadow was Lukah, then he might be trying some new type of practical joke. Jesse didn't blame him; they had been stationed here for three weeks and still had no luck finding a team. The Tower of London was credited with holding the best and most dangerous criminals in the entire country. But after almost a month of guarding duty, Jesse couldn't help but feel this was a slight exaggeration. Most prisoners seemed to have resigned themselves to execution, and the ones who did try to escape were less than tactical geniuses.
Jesse's eyes flickered up at the sound of movement. Well. He thought. This one might have a chance. He drew his sword at the shadow running at full pelt towards him.
His blade was met with another, probably stolen from a guard. The prisoner was strong, but Jesse had experience. He parried every blow, and by the sounds coming from his opponent, made more than a few hits.
In the dim light, Jesse's dark hair and eyes gave him the advantage. His footwork was flawless and he directed his sword like an extension of his slender arms. Meanwhile, the prisoner dealt every blow with an unnecessary amount of grunting.
I suppose he isn't going for the element of surprise. Jesse thought. Then he frowned at himself. Lukah made these sort of comments, not him. Where was Lukah, anyway?
It wasn't that Jesse needed the help, but it wasn't like Lukah to miss a fight. The man relished in delivering hits in between idle talk that often proved infuriating to his opponents. While Jesse didn't approve of such a technique, he had to admit that it was amusing to watch. Although he always made sure to scold Lukah for doing it after.
"Lukah!" Jesse called while making a particularly impressive jab. "I do think you're being paid to assist me with these types of things."
"Not enough," The reply echoed around the hall accompanied by the rhythm of approaching footsteps. Lukah grunted between breaths, as he ran towards Jesse, engaged in his own fight. "Buggers thought they would try to distract you and then take me on."
"How many?" Jesse asked, immediately beginning calculations in his mind to form their best plan of action.
"Two or three," Lukah replied casually between blows. The prisoners were impressive fighters, but Lukah and Jesse were backing them into a corner.
"Well? Which is it?" Jesse asked, his eyes darting between their opponents, making sure never to get lazy with his bocks. Lukah meanwhile whistled as a blade narrowly missed his ear, laughing as he dodged out the way. "Two or three?" Jesse prompted.
"Yes," Lukah replied, blocking a particularly strong hit which threatened to knock him off balance. "It was one of those."
"Which one?" Jesse asked exasperated, swinging his sword a hairs' breadth from Lukah's face to parry a blow that would have cut his partner in two.
"Does it matter?" Lukah asked as he stepped behind Jesse to fill the space he had created. Jesse cursed: correcting Lukah's mistake had given the prisoners a chance to back them against the wall. He made an angry jab at one of the prisoners, and then cursed again, scolding himself to get a grip on his emotions.
"It sort-of matters, Lukah, if there are only two prisoners loose, then these are them," Jesse gasped forcing air down his throat while he still had the time to breath. "But if there are three, then..."
Lukah laughed between pants. "You should lighten up, Jesse."
"Unfortunately, I consider my life to be a very serious matter," Jesse replied
"Yes, that is the one failing of you English," Lukah said. "We Italians are not so burdened with this sobriety - we laugh in the face of death."
"Now that is funny," remarked Jesse dryly, flicking the sword out of one of the prisoner's hands.
"What?" Lukah asked as he unarmed the other prisoner.
"That you think the English only have one failing," Jesse answered.
"Well, I was trying to be polite." Lukah shrugged. The men backed the prisoners against the wall. "Well what do you think Jesse? Do we -"
Jesse never got to hear what Lukah was about to ask, because a roar arose from the other inmates echoed through the corridor. He turned around to find the metal tip of a musket pointed towards his head.
"I think." Jesse said slowly. "That there were three prisoners let loose, not two."
"Well, mio amico." Lukah swallowed. "You could be right." He turned towards the man holding the gun. "Gentlemen," he said. "Let's not do anything we might regret..."
Jesse kicked the man in the stomach at the same moment Lukah bent his arm sideways; the musket fired down the hall. They threw the man onto the other prisoners and all three of them landed gracelessly on the stone floor.
"Like I said," Lukah said, dusting himself off. "I'm sure we can talk this through."
"So what 'appens now then?" One of the prisoners asked, spitting blood onto the floor. "We go back to our cells?"
"Unfortunately, your execution is going to be slightly earlier than expected," Jesse said, and he plunged in sword into the man's stomach. The other prisoners cried out in shock.
"You said that if we managed to escape you had a job for us." One of them shouted. "You told us we'd live."
"Yes, and as you have already stated yourself, that promise required you to escape." Jesse drawled, stabbing his sword into the second prisoner.
"It's nothing personal." Lukah said brightly, as though this was going to be some kind of reassurance to the last prisoner. "It's just that we are trying to rescue Casanova from the most heavily fortified prisons in Venice -"
"And we don't have time for dead weight," Jesse finished as he rammed his sword through the last prisoner.
Lukah was momentarily solemn, before brightening up again. "Oh well." He said, "Perhaps the next lot will be better."
"Yes." Jesse frowned, "Perhaps they will."
London, September, 1756
Maya strolled lazily through the streets of London as she played her violin. It was market day, and while London's market goers weren't music enthusiasts, there was always a few who would drop a few coins at Maya's feet. She scooped up the money and buried it in a pocket hidden in her skirts, smiling at the bustling crowd.
She suddenly felt a tug on her clothes and looked down to see a child, wide eyed and holding his hand out for change. Maya raised an eyebrow. She wasn't one to let kids go hungry, but she could hardly deny that she needed all the money she could get.
"Please miss." The little boy prompted, his lips wobbled in a rehearsed pout.
Maya rolled her eyes. "I know yer type," she said, "always swozzling folk for their money. Well I ain't got none. An' all I 'ave was hard earned."
The boy made a face like a wounded dear, and Maya felt a little guilty. She had spoken more harshly than she had intended, and softened her tone. "Fine then. There, take that, but mind you be botherin' those richer folk next time. Or get a yourself a talent, that pretty face won't pay forever."
But the child was no longer listening; he had already run off into the crowd the second the coins hit his palm. Maya sighed.
Your weakness for a soppy face will do you harm some day, she thought, as she drew her bow across the strings of her violin and began to play again.
The music drifted sweetly over the crowds, bringing warmth where the sun was lacking. Maya closed her eyes as she played, dreaming of warmer summers far from the dreary grey of England. She dreamt of her father, feeding her pastries and treats as they had strolled through the streets of Italy. Or had it been France? Maya couldn't remember exactly which, her father had taken her to so many fascinating places as a child. She had travelled with him on work trips and been free to roam until his business meetings were over. Then they would dance to street music or solve the world's problems as they lounged in the heat of the days.
That was all until her mother had insisted she returned to England to get an education that "a proper lady needs". Her father had protested of course, but there was no questioning the madam. So Maya was taken back to London, and she had rarely heard from her father since. Whenever she had asked her mother for news of him she would always get the same response: "He is busy, and you have more important matters to attend to."
These important matters being exercises to stand straight and sit so that one might gather her skirts in the most delicate fashion. All things that Maya found dull and saw little value in. Her mind preferred to wander among the stars rather than spend hours guessing which dress the governor's son might find most attractive.
The activity Maya and her mother had managed to agree on was the importance of playing music. Of course, her mother viewed this as another asset she could use to find Maya a respectable husband. Meanwhile, Maya preferred to use her violin to play away the hours she was expected to spend sitting idly. It did have to be the violin, though. Maya had been most insistent on that. She had seen someone playing one once during her travels with her father. Now she played it every day, it had been his parting gift to her, and she would never be without it.
Maya opened her eyes as she played the last notes of the melody. She frowned, a man all dressed in black was watching her intently. "Am I somethin' to gawp at?" she called to him.
The man gave her a friendly smile as he strode over, taking his hat off as he did so, revealing a head of silvery hair. "You play beautifully." he said. His voice was smooth, and it rose and fell softly like a lullaby.
"Thank you," Maya said shortly, her eyes roving over his face and clothes. The man's face was aged and creased into a smile when he spoke, not that this was important. She'd learned from her travels that a kind face doesn't necessarily make a kind man.
"But playing cannot support a good living for a lady," the man said.
"It earns me enough," Maya replied, "an' I ain't no lady, neither."
"You were once," the man persisted, "with quite a respectable mother as well. I wonder what would cause such a girl to run from home with nothing."
"Nothing but freedom and independence," Maya said, her thick accent suddenly leaving her. "That is all I need."
"But I'm sure you would still be grateful to have a bit more money," said the man.
"Who are you? What do you want?" Maya asked, suspicious.
"Perhaps I don't want anything," The man replied. "Perhaps I have spotted a great young talent whom I would like to support."
"Yes, and perhaps you're now talking utter nonsense," Maya added. The man laughed.
"I see you are not the type of woman to suffer fools gladly," he mused. He paused briefly. He seemed to be choosing his next words with care, or deciding whether or not to say them at all. "I have employed a couple of men to complete some business on my behalf. They are going to need a team to help them and I have been… selecting people for their auditioning process. I believe that you may be a good candidate for this." Then he added, "Of course, if you were to meet their requirements, you would be paid most handsomely."
"This auditioning process," Maya said thoughtfully. "What would it entail?"
"Mental strength, ambition… and danger," the man replied gravely.
Maya gave a devilish smile. "When do we begin?"